Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I recently read Fatherless, a novel written by Brian Gail and published by One More Soul. (Interestingly, the book doesn’t appear to be available for purchase from One More Soul.) I found the book to be a fairly easy and compelling read. I had no trouble completing the 500+ pages in about a week. I joined a few other men for a discussion of the book and the issues raised by it.

The story looks at the moral dilemmas facing three Catholic families who seek guidance from a young associate pastor. One case explores the way in which the pharmaceutical industry achieved cultural and governmental approval of oral contraceptives in spite of the serious medical risks to women. The second case follows the marketing of premium cable channels and the infiltration of smut as entertainment into the homes of unsuspecting families.

The third case is a little less clear. I suspect that Gail wanted to show that contraceptive use undermines marriage, but he also pulls in themes of clerical pedophilia, mental disorder, and demonic oppression without ever providing a satisfactory resolution. Thus, it becomes unclear what drives the actions of the third family’s father. Take away the extraordinary circumstances of his daughter’s behavior, and things might well have turned out differently. Of the three families in the novel, the plot for the third was the least satisfying for me as a reader.

The three plots are woven together into a fourth story line that follows the ministry of a priest who, at the beginning of the tale is just entering his second year after ordination. The over-arching theme of Gail’s novel might be the way in which the Catholic Church lost its moral voice in the ‘60s and ‘70s and only started to recover that voice under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. The bishops and dissenting theologians are particularly singled out for their sins of omission (for the bishops) and commission (for the theologians).

Overall, the book provides an important focus for discussion, even if it does fall short in some areas. I will certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the threat posed to the family by the prevailing American culture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Race Pace

Race pace. That’s what I used to call it those many years ago when I ran high school cross country, and ran it pretty well. My race pace was a long, relatively efficient stride that, as a high school senior, I could hold for the entirety of a 5K race.

Nowadays, I slip into the middle-aged version of that stride only on the last quarter mile or so of my training runs. It feels good, and the dream is that I somehow manage to convince myself that I can once again start a race with that pace and hold if for a full five kilometers (that’s 3.1 miles for those of you in Rio Linda). Running is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. I often find myself at the starting line asking whether I want to run or race. If I’m running, then I set the fastest pace that I’m confident will still enable me to cover the distance. If I were to race, then I would try to slip into the longer stride, hoping and praying that the greater efficiency will still allow me to make it to the finish line without collapsing from exhaustion. Racing entails risk, and I almost always opt for the safer strategy.

I wrote a bit last year about the intersection of running and spirituality. There are a lot of aspects of running that are analogous to the inner life of the soul. St. Paul counsels us to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) In light of my running experience, I’m not sure how I should apply the advice of the Apostle.

In any given race, there is going to be a group of runners half my age against whom I cannot possibly compete. If I were to try to run with them, I would be completely spent before the first mile was passed. If I limit the competition to just my age group, the prospects become much better, but they still depend on who shows up to run against me. I could “run to win” by running in only small races with weak fields, but the spiritual analogy to doing that would seem to suggest the opposite of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s analogy makes a little more sense if the award is not the award for any given race, but rather the “tour” award, in which there are a series of races where points are awarded and totaled at the end. The tour winner might not be the fastest runner, but rather the most consistent – the runner who showed up for every race, even though he knew he wouldn’t be receiving any glory for leading the pack across the finish line.

What, I wonder, would be the spiritual equivalent of my race pace, the sustainability of which I doubt every time I start a race? Likewise, what would be the equivalent of the fastest sustainable pace for which I invariably settle? Is there virtue in the recognition of my own limitations, or does it signal a fundamental lack of trust?

I read once (I forget where, so I can’t provide proper attribution) that there are two acceptable responses to the temptation to sin. The first is to throw yourself into fervent prayer and pious distractions. In running terms, this would probably be an all-out sprint. The second response is to recognize the temptation for what it is and wait it out. Temptations occur every day, and we need not be overly concerned about the temptation itself so long as we do not give in to it. In running terms, this would be a run-forever pace that might carry a runner in excess of ten miles (note that I don’t seem to possess a run-forever pace – regardless of how slowly I run, I max out at around 7-1/2 miles due to the repeated impacts on my knees; my forever pace is a walk). The race pace and the maximum sustainable pace for a 3-mile race are both significantly closer to a sprint than to a walk, especially when you consider that I’ve never been much of a sprinter.

I recently ran a race in which I tried the race pace approach. I made a conscious effort to stretch my stride and conserve energy. It turns out that race pace is not as fast as I thought it was. I had noticed this phenomenon before during my training runs. Sometimes, you feel like you’re plodding along, struggling through every step, only to discover at the end of your run that you made really good time. On other days, you feel like you’re running strong, but once you finish, you discover that your time is only mediocre.

Maybe the optimized race pace is a fantastic illusion. It ultimately boils down to knowing, through training, how fast you can run and being able to settle into the pace early in the race. It also means pushing yourself in training to improve that pace. Spiritually, Paul seems to be saying that, if we’re going to enter a race, we shouldn’t just jog through so that we finish having barely broken a sweat. Even if we know we aren’t going to win, we should put forth our best effort. Spiritually, that means that we can’t allow ourselves to become complacent and presume upon easy grace to carry us into the kingdom through the wide gate. Effort is a part of that equation, but certainly not the whole thing. Just as a runner needs to train if he expects to compete,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blood Muslim and Blood Innocent

There’s a lot of buzz out there currently about plans to build an Islamic center two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center – the twin towers that were brought down in a terrorist attack by Islamic jihadists on September 11, 2001. Most folks refer to the proposed center, to be built at the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Avenue, as the Ground Zero Mosque, or GZM for short. The Associated Press doesn’t like the GZM terminology and has directed its reporters to use other phrases to emphasize that the location is near, but not at, the site of towers. Like most of those on the political right, I think the proposal is legal but betrays, at best, a tone-deafness on the part of the group that wants to build the Islamic center to the sensitivities of those who suffered an emotional trauma on that day in 2001. Others have made persuasive arguments that the intentions (real or perceived) could be significantly less ecumenical than those that have been proclaimed. It’s not my intention here to add to that discussion.

What I do want to highlight are the recently revealed comments of the main GZM backer, Imam Feisal Rauf, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Rauf stated in 2005, “We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.” Many are interpreting this statement to mean that the Imam believes the United States is worse than Al Qaida. I only wish to point out that, if parsed, the statement is not surprising coming from a Muslim cleric, and probably true.

On the one hand, we have all Muslims killed by agents of the United States. We’re not just talking about innocent bystanders or devout practicing Muslims. It matters not that U.S. forces operate under constrictive rules of engagement that take extreme measures to avoid harming non-combatants. It matters not that weapons employed by the United States are precisely guided to minimize collateral damage. It matters not that the vast majority of the Muslim blood on the hands of the United States came from Muslims actively seeking to harm the United States.

On the Al Qaida side of the equation we have innocent non-Muslims. In the minds of at least some Muslims, the phrase is an oxymoron. To be a non-Muslim is to be an infidel, and no infidel is innocent; therefore, the entire population of innocent non-Muslims is precisely zero – it is a null set. It matters not that those in the World Trade Center that day were only going about their lives and their jobs. It matters not that Al Qaida kills Muslims who aren’t Muslim enough.

I have no doubt that Imam Rauf believes what he said. However, the terms of the equation are completely unreasonable and subject to bias. If this is the face of “moderate” Islam, how can we even conduct a conversation?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Little Faith

Today's Gospel (Mt 17:14-20) contains some of the most mis-applied words of Christ in the whole Bible, and begs for a canonical reading within the context of everything else that the Bible contains. In the passage, the disciples are unable to cast out a demon and ask our Lord why. "Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

I know a woman who has lupus. Other members of her Pentecostal community have told her that if she just had enough faith, she wouldn't be sick. I know a man with hemophilia. He was told by a Catholic "evangelist" that if he asked to be healed with sufficient faith, that he would be healed. She still has lupus, and he still has hemophilia. I don't think that necessarily says anything about their faith or lack thereof.

There are counterexamples within the Bible indicating that those who read the passage this way are misinterpreting the text. Consider St. Paul. He wrote to the Corinthians, "Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an Angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, be he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'" (2 Cor 7-9)

Job was full of faith, and he was blessed by God with family and possessions. But God stripped them away. He loses his property and his children, and his body is stricken with disease. Yet, Job remains faithful.

Jesus himself offers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the faithful Lazarus dies as a diseased beggar (Luke 16:19-29).

So, while today's gospel does indeed emphasize the need for and the power of faith, it should not be read in isolation from the rest of the Bible. God wants us to accomplish great things, and we must trust that he will not abandon us. As St. Paul says in Romans 8:31, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" But God often chooses to work through weakness. His ways are not our ways, and we can't always understand what He's up to. If what we ask for isn't part of his plan, we won't get what we ask for. On the other hand, if our will is attuned to his and we have faith, then nothing can stop us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lex Credendi

Ever since earlier this year, when Pope Benedict XVI smoothed the path for Anglicans unhappy with the trajectory of their denomination to return to full communion with Rome, there has a been a steady trickle of stories about impending conversions. The latest story involves 15 Anglican bishops who acknowledge that many Anglicans appear ready to make the jump. For all those who come back across the Tiber I say, welcome home. We’re happy to have you back. However, there are some things that you’ll need to check at the door.

What bothers me is the possibility that this is all due solely to proposals by the Church of England to ordain women as bishops. These people stuck with the Anglicans through acceptance of contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexual marriage, female priests, and openly homosexual priests and bishops, but female bishops are just too much for them? They didn’t have any problem rejecting papal authority or the invalidity of their ordinations or clerical celibacy before, but all that changes when a woman is named bishop?

Now, however, they can come home to Rome and still worship according to the Anglican rites and the Book of Common Prayer. Does that trump all of the doctrinal difficulties? There is a commonly cited Latin phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi, which is often translated as the law of prayer is the law of belief. For these converts, the orandi part is not changing. Is the credendi?

What I fear is that the new Catholics will have come for the wrong reasons. Rather than running to the bride of Christ, the will have been running away from some corrupted simulacrum of her. Rather than shedding their old, erroneous beliefs, they will try to bring them along. “Yes,” they will say, “I’m Catholic now, but I don’t really believe all of that medieval stuff.”

I sincerely hope that I’m wrong, and that we really do see an influx of souls entering into full communion, even if they do retain an attachment to the Book of Common Prayer.

Jonah's Idioms

I generally enjoy the writing of Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute. He usually manages to mix irreverence with clear thinking in a humorous way that incorporates lots of elements of popular culture. He is also capable, when he wants to, of writing very seriously. I’m just now finally getting around to finishing his great book, Liberal Fascism.

A few years ago, Jonah wrote a column, The Tyranny of the Clichés, in which he argued that many members of the commentariat over-use the cliché. It has, he wrote, become a substitute for argument, and those who resort to them are taking a dangerous short-cut. I’m paraphrasing here, and it’s always possible that I’ve misunderstood what he was actually saying. We shouldn’t always assume that a cliché is true.

If clichés are subject to abuse, then surely metaphors and idioms are as well.

I’ve noticed that certain idioms seem to be getting used with increasing frequency by Mr. Goldberg. This was acceptable when the recurring term was “feckless crapweasel,” a phrase that was practically synonymous with those upon whom Jonah was heaping his duly-earned scorn. But he’s sprinkling other phrases into his columns that, frankly, are distracting me from whatever point it is that he’s trying to make. If another commentating is making an argument (or an assertion without an argument) based on faulty logic, it’s “nonsense on stilts.” If people are getting excited over what Jonah considers to be a minor matter, they’re “getting their dresses over their heads” over something that’s “not worth going to the mattresses” over. On the other hand, if Jonah thinks it is important, he’ll fight “hammer and tongs.”

I don’t mind idioms or memes. I use them myself, because they often evoke a complicated idea in a few brief words. But they only work for a targeted audience which is able to recognize and follow the reference. Since I write for myself, I don’t have to worry about whether anybody else can understand what I’m saying. As long as I understand it, my target audience is satisfied. Jonah’s audience, on the other hand, is huge, and just because he might know what he’s saying doesn’t mean that his audience does. And that’s just annoying.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Zombie Within

Way back in my formative days, a zombie was a 2 HD undead creature easily turned by a mid-level cleric. If you understand that sentence AND you read my blog, then either you weren’t as damaged by the experiences of your formative years as many people warned or you picked up a helm of opposite alignment somewhere along the way. Since those years, zombies have arguably seen even more success in the popular culture than even vampires (which were also undead, but much harder to turn). All those other undead (skeletons, ghouls, ghasts, ghosts, specters, wraiths, and especially liches) must be terribly envious (at least the ones that can think).

Zombies have become so popular in film that they now have their own genre. The slow-moving, dim-witted animated corpses with a hunger for brains weren’t menacing enough, so Hollywood turned them into viral monsters, sometimes with the ability to jump and climb walls (I’m thinking here of Resident Evil and I Am Legend zombies). What is common to zombie movies is the massed horde nature of the zombie attack. No matter how many you drop, they just keep coming, threatening to overrun the entire planet and wipe out the human race. Discussions abound (seriously!) on how to survive the zombie apocalypse and defeat the zombie horde.

I am a zombie…

Whoa! Put down the shotgun! I’m only speaking metaphorically. Sort of.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him though baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father , we too may live a new life.” You know what I’m talking about: it’s the whole death to self and life in Christ thing. The zombie part comes in when my self won’t stay dead. Just like the worst of the horror movie villains (Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers – take your pick) I just won’t stay dead.

Every time I think I’ve finally put a stake through the heart of my selfish desires (I know, the stake through the heart isn’t zombies, it’s vampires) and can live happily every after as a good Christian, the beast that is me comes roaring back to life. I have discovered that the second rule of zombie combat is iterative. For the uninitiated, the second rule is double tap: if you shoot the monster, and it falls apparently dead at your feet, you don’t go over and poke it with your toe, and you definitely don’t drop the gun to embrace the helpless woman you’ve been protecting – you put another slug in it. The iterative part is that you can never stop putting slugs into it. If you understood the 2 HD zombie that I started the post with, then you’ll also understand that this is like the classic troll – it regenerates.

So maybe I’m really a troll.

Wait just a second, though. I said that the common element in the zombie movie genre was the massed attack by a horde. I’m not going to suggest anything like multiple personalities, but certainly there is a figurative horde of vices, sins, and imperfections that have to be dispatched one at a time, and sometimes it seems like there’s some double-teaming going on. You drop the zombie to your right, forget to double tap before turning to engage the zombie on your left, and before you know it, the zombie you thought was slain is on your back, trying to gnaw through your skull to the tasty brains within.

Oh, how I wish that it didn’t have to be this way. I wish that I could just nuke it from orbit (to switch metaphors yet again) and just incinerate the whole horde. I wish I could just set the fundamental option switch to “Christ” and live happily ever after rather than having to continually modulate frequencies ala Geordi La Forge. I don’t know whether everybody’s an undead troll at heart, or just me.

What I do know is that, although I might be splattered with zombie juice and occasionally lose my footing, I haven’t forgotten that I’m still human, and that my humanity has been redeemed by a perfect atoning sacrifice. A sacramental armory assures that I won’t run out of ammo, so that battle will continue as long as I have the will to fight.

Bring on the zombies!

Don't Do That!

Over at the First Thoughts blog, Joe Carter posted on Friday an admittedly subjective list of things a man should never do. I am guilty of some of them.

I admit that I enjoy playing video games. After a long day in the cubicle, it can be remarkably soothing to sit down to a good first-person shooter. It is necessary, however, to set time limits, because the temptation is always there to play just a little longer in order to complete the next objective. The real fun, as noted by one of Joe’s commenters, comes from playing with my kids. Split-screen co-operative or head-to-head play is a blast. I find these interactions to be much more enjoyable than board games.

I am also guilty of cutting my own hair, although I am at a complete loss as to why that’s on the list. I cut my own hair because (a) it saves money, and (b) nobody else does it right. This just might be the one thing that I can do for myself with more satisfaction in the result that if I had paid someone else to do it. Where is the shame in that?

As for the first item: I reluctantly agree. Ultimately, it’s hard to come up with any good that can come from it. It ranks right up there with watching television – including sports broadcasts.